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Are public media podcasts facing a “Moneyball” moment?

I’m not a huge sports person, but I love a great story, which is probably why I became a podcaster. It’s also why, every few years, I comfort-watch the heck out of Moneyball.

Recently, when I rewatched the movie based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, I couldn’t stop thinking about the podcast industry and public radio — two entities that are wrapping up 2023 much like the 2001 Oakland Athletics, which is to say, pretty banged up.

Moneyball starts with the Oakland Athletics failing to beat the Yankees for the American League Division Series. (The Athletics recently received approval from league owners to move the team from Oakland to Las Vegas.) A tired-looking Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a divorced general manager with a bad haircut, looking ahead to a rough next season. He begs agents on the phone for more time as his top players head away from the Athletics and into free agency, soon to be courted by the deep pockets of bigger teams like the Yankees or Red Sox.

Eventually Beane pushes for more money with team owner Stephen Schott (played, oddly, by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick). Schott — not unlike some who’ve pushed a pile of money into the podcasting pot — isn’t interested in investing more. “What else can I help you with?” Schott asks, turning icy. Things look grim for a once-great team trying to stay relevant in a changing landscape.

Things are looking a little grim in public radio and public radio podcasts, too. Listenership to terrestrial radio continues to decline because of obvious, fundamental changes in technology. (My employer WBUR is recently an exception to the trend.) NPR (and its podcast division, which just a few years ago was bringing in more revenue than broadcast), faces an advertising freefall and a temporary-yet-untimely dearth of leadership. Digital membership — which drives revenue for all kinds of popular shows — has been adopted more cautiously by public radio podcasts even though public media helped invent the crowdfunding model. Even beyond public media, people are wondering if the “dumb money” is gone and whether the podcast boom is bust.

Longer eight or 10-part limited series — long the default position of podcasters, based on sluggers like Serial, S-Town, and other shows that helped define the medium — weren’t doing as well at LAist. But short run sets of stories were getting strong audience numbers in a sporadically publishing feed: Imperfect Paradise. So Krochmal and team stretched to make the show a more always-on home for short sets of episodes and partnerships with newsroom reporting. The first four seasons of Imperfect Paradise have pulled in around a million downloads since January 2022. The podcast has relaunched as a weekly series with “one consistent host and shorter, four-episode cycles” and its first series — kicking off with an exclusive interview with former L.A. City Council president Nury Martinez — has already seen more than half a million downloads in just two months.

This kind of work at LAist has made something else possible: a feedback loop between podcast and broadcast. Imperfect Paradise runs every weekend on the air, with a reminder to listeners that they can catch the show early in the podcast feed. The podcast feed, in turn, promotes the Sunday broadcast slot on KPCC. The team does the same with their local daily podcast How To LA, which airs on the station’s localized version of All Things Considered every Thursday.

“We’re not creating content as podcasts in a little walled off cul de sac,” Krochmal said. “We’re creating really compelling, really rigorous programming for LAist that should appear in as many places as possible.”

Rebecca Lavoie, the director of on-demand audio at NHPR, said the station did not bet on podcasting being a huge revenue driver for the larger organization, though it does get revenue for podcasts through major gifts, sponsorship, and digital and on-air fundraising. Instead, she says the station simply acknowledges that some of the best storytelling its journalists can do is in a longform medium, and that means podcasts. The benefit is that podcasts can drive revenue. Lavoie said that NHPR’s two always-on shows, Outside/In and Civics101, have seen significant growth, with both shows increasing by more than 50% in both listeners and downloads in the past year. Limited investigative series like Bear Brook and The 13th Step, both of which took years to report and produce, have put NHPR on the national map for podcasts. Together, NHPR is seeing around a million downloads a month.

In some ways, Lavoie agrees with the Moneyball analogy — the idea that in order to win again, public media podcasting has to refocus on a mix of projects that bring podcast units closer to newsrooms and financial sustainability via a variety of different strengths.

In Moneyball, Jonah Hill’s character says the Athletics can win by finding value in players that no one else can see. And public radio actually has a record of doing this with projects, whether putting a couple of guffawing mechanic brothers from Boston on the air or platforming Latinx stories and voices every week. At WBUR, we think about this all the time: What is the mix of projects that will serve our mission, gain new audience, and serve the listeners we already have? It’s about fielding a team of projects that can work together to win — not exclusively chasing heavy hitters. Public media has always been a place for weirdo, nerdy, real-people content that has little to do with celebrity. And it’s proven over time that there’s a big audience for that.

And if we’re doing a straight comparison of ball players to podcasters, Lavoie says public radio stations are the best in the league.

“We have the actual people that are the sluggers in public radio,” Lavoie said. “We have the talent. We have the equipment. We have the know-how. I listen to so many other things that are being put out into the world. We are swimming in mediocrity. But public radio stations have put out some of the highest quality podcasting being made in the last couple of years, full stop.”

Sweeney, from KUOW, is a baseball fan, but he cautioned that beyond choosing a mix of projects with different strengths, paying closer attention to data, and planning a cadence of releases further out, stations need an underlying philosophy.

“If you don’t have a philosophy, you turn into the Mets, and I’m a lifelong Mets fan,” he said, adding that the Mets survive via the largess of a wealthy benefactor, but don’t have a lot of pennants. (He likely meant long-suffering Mets fan.) Either way, when it comes to public radio podcasts, people want to know if there really is always next year. Some of us know there can be. Heck, if we do things right, we might win some championships.

Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR.

Original photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures.

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